With Philip Rivers' Super Bowl window closing, Chargers must improve

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Los Angeles Chargers exceeded expectations by finishing the regular season 12-4 and reaching the postseason for the first time since 2013.

They proved resilient, winning nine straight games after boarding a plane before being humbled by the New England Patriots 41-28 on Sunday in the AFC divisional round of the playoffs.

"We got our butts kicked today," Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said. "But this -- we can learn a lot from this year, this season, from one another.

"It's not a comfortable moment for us, for sure, but I think in these times, we can learn a lot about ourselves, and we can grow and be a better person, a better teammate and a better coach."

Injuries and inconsistent play finally caught up with the Chargers.

This one was over early. The Chargers trailed 28-7 with 6:04 left -- in the first half -- and never really made a game of it.

The Patriots scored touchdowns on their first four possessions. Per ESPN Stats & Information, no team has done that in the playoffs since the Indianapolis Colts in the 2003 wild-card round against the Buffalo Bills. The Colts won that game 41-10.

"You can count on the Patriots executing flawlessly," defensive end Isaac Rochell said. "They're not going to make dumb penalties. They're going to have a good game plan. And if you don't show up and are ready to play, they're going to beat you.

"They're a good team that played really well today. They outplayed us today, and the scoreboard showed that."

Rivers dropped his record to 0-3 in playoff games for which the temperature is below freezing and 1-5 in such games all time. He's now 0-8 against Tom Brady's Patriots, including 0-3 in the postseason.

Rivers isn't getting any younger. He is 37 years old, and his contract is up after the 2019 season. He has said he wants to be around when the Chargers open the Inglewood Stadium in 2020. But the team has some work to do if it wants to get to a Super Bowl while Rivers is still around.

For starters, the Chargers have to revamp a linebackers unit ravaged by injuries, with starters Denzel Perryman (knee), Kyzir White (knee) and Jatavis Brown (ankle) all finishing the regular season on the injured reserve list.

Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley did a good job of adjusting on the fly, effectively using seven defensive backs in an AFC wild-card win over the Baltimore Ravens. But with two weeks to prepare, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick showed why he's one of the best to coach in the NFL. The Patriots ran right at the Chargers' small lineup to the tune of 155 rushing yards.

The Chargers also have to improve the offensive line to better protect Rivers and consistently run the football. They managed just 19 rushing yards against the Patriots.

"We build on it by recognizing what our strengths really are, what makes us really good and really honing in on the details of that," left tackle Russell Okung said. "One thing I know about this team: These guys are going to continue to demand a lot of one another and of ourselves.

"As long as we continue to capture that during the offseason, [we] will continue to be on the right path."

Lastly, the Chargers must figure out how to win the AFC West so they can play these postseason games at home. Yes, playing at Dignity Health Sports Park -- a 27,000-seat soccer stadium serving as the temporary home of the Chargers -- isn't exactly the home-field advantage you'd like in the postseason, but it's much better than having to win a road game in the freezing cold at Gillette Stadium.

Teams that host playoff games have an advantage when it comes to reaching the Super Bowl. According to ESPN Stats & Information Research, from 2013 to 2017, nine of the 10 No. 1 seeds in the AFC and NFC reached the Super Bowl. Next week's AFC and NFC title games will be played between No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.

"If you really think about it, yeah, you want to be at home," Rivers said. "There's no question. You want to be at home, where it's about 65 degrees and it's your place. You're not dealing with the noise and being able to communicate and all those things. Those things could have helped a little bit today too. But they just outplayed us."